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Scenic river, dangerous mission: Border Patrol on the Rio Grande

Boat crews seek out smugglers

RIO GRANDE VALLEY – What appears to be a scenic cruise on the Rio Grande is actually a dangerous mission for the Border Patrol’s boat crews.

“Nobody is more forward deployed than a boat unit,” said Chris Cabrera, local vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, who has served on boat crews.

“It’s probably one of the most, if not the most, dangerous job in the patrol,” Cabrera said.

He said although the crews are armed and ready, the small vessels offer “no cover, no concealment if you’re on the boat. No place to hide.”

Yet smugglers have thickly wooded, overgrown riverbanks on either side of the Rio Grande to watch and listen for the boat crews.

“They’re either wearing all camouflage or all dark. So they hide under the brush and we really can’t see them passing by on the boats," said Roberto Cordova, a crew member.

Cabrera said although two boats can shut down 10-15 miles of river,

“We probably have at any given time, 8-10 boats just sitting there," he said.

Border Patrol wouldn’t confirm, but Cabrera said that’s in McAllen alone.

“Do we have the certified manpower for a dozen boats? That’s another question,” said Marlene Castro, spokeswoman for the Rio Grande Valley sector of U.S. Border Patrol.

She said crews first must be trained based on U.S. Coast Guard safety standards.

Castro also said agents are not assigned boat duty.

“That’s a choice for the agents if they want to do it. We don’t say, ‘OK, you’re going to train for that. Or you’re going to train for that,’” Castro said.

“If they were given some sort of extra pay, you would have people jumping over each other to get it," Cabrera said

He said even without extra pay, more would do it, if the agency would make more of an effort to recruit boat crews.

Castro said the agency deploys boat crews when and where they’re most needed, based on intelligence, much of it gathered by the boat crews themselves.

Omar Puente, a boat commander, said they look for areas being used by smugglers.

“We’re the first to spot them and pass them on with our GPS coordinates,” Puente said.

Line agents and other specialty units on the ground and by air can track smuggling operations further inland.

Castro said Border Patrol has more layers of defense beyond the river.

Cabrera said he believes if additional boat crews were patrolling, perhaps fewer ground resources would be needed.